SALT LAKE CITY
Utah lawmakers on Monday advanced a proposal to create a political nominating commission to make decisions about transgender student-athletes participating in youth sports – plunging into a heated debate that has taken place in dozens of Republican-run state houses.
The idea is the latest attempt by Utah Republicans to add state oversight to youth sports and follows stalled efforts to pass an outright ban. Fights against bans at other statehouses have become touchstones for the broader LGBTQ rights movement, sparking legal battles and outcry.
Utah’s proposed “School Activities Eligibility Commission” would create criteria and assess the physical characteristics of transgender student-athletes and how they compare to “baseline ranges” for their age and gender.
Its rulings would determine which transgender athletes can compete in all “gender-designated” youth sports, though lawmakers have focused on the idea that transgender girls compete in leagues that match their gender identity.
The debate pits parent groups and social conservatives who believe policy is needed to establish equity and preserve girls’ sport against LGBTQ advocates, who say the low numbers of transgender student-athletes suggests that the issue is more about culture war messages than leveling an unfair playing field.
“To those who think I’m just trampling on women’s sports, or this is a solution looking for a problem: my three daughters have played (against) transgender athletes. So this is happening in our state said Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland, sponsor of the proposal, on Monday.
In Utah, efforts to regulate the participation of transgender student-athletes in women’s sports stalled last year amid concerns from Republican Gov. Spencer Cox and Jazz owner Ryan Smith, who feared the adoption of a ban does not jeopardize efforts to bring big events to Utah, like the 2023 NBA All-Star Game.
The governors of South Dakota, North Dakota and Louisiana vetoed bills targeting transgender student-athletes last year, fearing backlash from sports organizations. But states that have passed bans haven’t faced boycotts like North Carolina did when the NCAA and NBA moved events in response to the passage of a state law to 2016 limiting public restrooms that transgender people could use.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem this month signed into law a ban on transgender girls playing in women’s sports at the youth and college levels.
Of the approximately 85,000 participants in sports overseen by the Utah High School Activities Association, only three student-athletes have gone through the association’s transgender participation eligibility review process. Birkeland, said Monday that she was aware of other participants, but she did not elaborate.
The association, led by representatives from schools across Utah, follows its own procedures to assess transgender student-athletes and ensure their gender identity is “not for the purpose of gaining advantage. unfair”. But politicians in the Legislative Assembly have argued that the issue is public policy that should be overseen by elected officials.
Last year, The Associated Press contacted two dozen lawmakers in more than 20 states considering similar youth sports measures and found that it was only a problem a few times among the hundreds of thousands of teenagers. who play sports in high school.
Birkeland, who coaches college basketball juniors when she’s not in the Utah Legislature, said she’s had conversations with many girls who feel it’s unfair to the Utah Legislature. transgender athletes who have experienced some of the effects of male puberty to compete alongside them, she said Monday. The girls, she said, would be reassured if they knew that a panel set up to level the playing field was reviewing their eligibility.
Birkeland said the commission’s approval could lend legitimacy to transgender athletes who feel targeted. However, University of Utah pediatrician Jennifer Plumb, who said her child was transgender, argued that a special exam would make transgender children feel more singled out.
“When we start talking about these ‘check you’re girl enough, or check you’re boy enough (politics),’ these kids are shaking in their proverbial boots,” Plumb said.
The proposed commission passed a legislative committee in a 6-3 vote on Monday, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.
If the bill is signed into law, the new commission would be made up of members including doctors, mental health professionals, statisticians and athletic trainers. The panel of experts — all appointed by Cox and leaders of Utah’s Republican-majority legislature — would create criteria for participation and assess individual cases based on medical information provided on gender transition, including treatments hormonal.
In Utah, all students participating in elementary or high school sports upload birth certificates. Transgender students who apply to participate in a “gender-designated interscholastic activity” that does not match the gender listed on their birth certificate would be referred to the commission.
But people — including transgender student-athletes — can apply for and change their birth certificates. Birkeland acknowledged that basing the commission’s criteria on birth certificates creates a loophole in his proposal.
In red states like Utah, lobbyists who oppose the establishment of new state laws governing when transgender athletes can participate in youth sports remain in discussion with lawmakers over the proposal, rather than outright oppose it.
“We just don’t think it’s necessary for the legislature to identify the specific physical characteristics the commission considers in determining whether a teenager is eligible to play a particular sport,” said Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah.
The story corrects the first name of Bill’s godfather to Kera, not Keri.